Since August of this year, protesters, known as Water Protectors, have peacefully stood up to federal, state, and county governments and powerful energy corporations, only to be met with “one of the most militant responses ever in North Dakota’s history.” The Governor has imposed a state of emergency, deployed heavily militarized police, put protesters under near constant surveillance, and erected roadblocks on roads leading to Standing Rock
The Water Protectors have set up a an encampment, where they pray, engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, and hold marches and rallies to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The encampment was launched by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which says it wasn’t properly consulted about the proposed route for DAPL. While DAPL does not run through the reservation itself, it does cross over the Missouri River, the source of the reservation’s water. The tribe worries the pipe could leak, and threaten the entire reservation’s water supply. This is not an empty concern, the pipeline was rerouted to cross the Missouri River at its current proximity to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, because a previously proposed route was found to potentially threaten the water supply of Bismarck, North Dakota. That the risk was considered unacceptable for the people of Bismarck to endure, but perfectly ok for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to face is indicative of the pervasive legacies of colonialism and racism in the US. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe also objects to the pipeline’s proposed route, as it threatens to destroy areas of cultural and historical significance to the tribe. While the tribe has pursued avenues in the court, they have also sought to deploy nonviolent direct action to protect themselves, their water, and their heritage.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not standing alone. Members of other indigenous tribes, environmentalists, and others have joined the encampment which has grown quickly from a few hundred to thousands. The state has responded to these growing protests by seeking to deter them. Greg Wilz, North Dakota’s director of Homeland Security, responded by removing state owned water tanks from the encampment. The governor responded by declaring a State of Emergency in parts of North Dakota.
The nonviolent Water Protectors have repeatedly faced violence from government and private security. On September 3, the 150th anniversary of the massacre of 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux by the US Army, private security forces attacked the Water Protectors, including a young child, with mace and dogs. On September 28, North Dakota police in full military gear arrested 21 Water Protectors who were part of a larger group about 150 Water Protectors who had gathered to pray.
The use of militarized police to target Water Protectors, often during prayer, is part of a pattern that has been repeated continuously since the encampment began. Most recently, 27 Water Protectors were arrested on October 10. “The fact that 27 Water Protectors were arrested during a peaceful gathering on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a testament to the greed and brutality fueling our government’s centuries-old colonization and exploitation of Native lives and their land that continues to this day,” National Lawyer’s Guild Communications Director Tasha Moro told Dissent NewsWire. The NLG has sent volunteer lawyers to Standing Rock and, along with local lawyers, has formed the Red Owl Legal Collective to provide legal assistance and support to the protesters.
Everyone at the camp is under almost constant surveillance. According to the ACLU,
Surveillance starts early every morning with near-constant low overflights of the camp by both plane and helicopter. One morning alone, on October 2, surveillance flights were recorded at 7:15 a.m., 7:45 a.m., and again at 11:25 a.m. These surveillance flights continue if there is any perceived action coming out of the camp. Water protectors are followed on county roads by both state and private security helicopters as they drive on public roads in Morton County.
Even before one arrives at the camp the heavy arm of the state is present. Police and National Guard troops have erected roadblocks miles from Standing Rock and are checking IDs, and asking where people live and where they are going — much like an army does during a military occupation. To heighten the sense of a place under military occupation, the checkpoints are lined with jersey barriers and police and National Guard troops are using military vehicles, not normal police vehicles.
The militarized police occupation has a twin deleterious impact on the right to political expression. When police respond to peaceful protest and prayer dressed for war it dramatically escalates tensions, makes a peaceful resolution unlikely, and has the impact of creating an intimidating presence meant to chill speech.
The police are also communicating a message to the public at large. It is not just Water Protectors and their supporters who must endure roadblocks, anybody driving down the road must. When people are told they are in a “state of emergency” and are stopped to have their IDs checked by military style checkpoints they are being told that the Water Protectors are a danger to them. This overreaction is meant not only to chill the speech of the Water Protectors, but to demonize them before the public at large.
Local public officials are doing their part to vilify the protesters. A County commissioner told the New York Times, “If somebody would come and set fire to their [local rancher’s] hay reserves and come and cut their fences and cause their livestock to get loose, that causes real problems.” Note that none of these things have happened.
The media has also been targeted by the police. After independent journalist and host of Democracy Now! Amy Goodman reported from Standing Rock, Morton County police issued a warrant for Goodman’s arrest charging her with criminal trespass. This arrest warrant stems from reporting by Goodman that captured on video the vicious dog attacks, video that was replayed by a number of news broadcasters. She will turn herself in on October 17, declaring ““I will go back to North Dakota to fight this charge. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment. I was doing my job as a journalist, covering a violent attack on Native American protesters.”
The response by North Dakota and Morton County to the Water Protectors highlights several very serious issues plaguing our country. It brings to the forefront the legacy of colonialism and racism, that has culminated in the disrespecting of the sovereignty of indigenous people, as well as, the use of state violence against those who try to retain their sovereignty. It is part of a larger trend of law enforcement viewing democracy as the enemy and responding to protest with military style gear and tactics. Finally, it demonstrates the willingness of the state to trample on dissent in order to defend corporate profits.